Thursday, January 10, 2008

bitter women and academia

This last semester I took a class on 19th century women's lit. It was late in the evening, and I am fond of the professor for being an old roue and for sharing my aversion to daylight.

We were collectively talking about the Awakening, I believe, and the punishment that the novel's author extends to a female character for the desire she experiences but does not control. I forget how it came up, but one of the women in class made an off-hand remark about men, shrugged at the professor's discomfort, and attributed it to her divorce. The student in question is not my favorite person by any means, but I felt compelled to agree with the point, that Edna's character bears a disproportionate quantity of the responsibility for her sexuality in a highly negative way. And since I've been divorced, perhaps we could blame that, too.

I was not the only woman to chime in. I cracked a joke about interpretation.

The professor blinked, looked at me and said that there were an awful lot of bitter women in the room. I told him we should have a party.

We're such bitter bitches, you know?

The first student said she'd bring her papers. The woman in the back said she'd bring her hospital records. I decided not to say what popped into my head.

I'll bring my daughter's rape kit.

If there's anything I will never forgive, it'll be whomever the hell told everyone about it, just after I got into the department here. One of my professors, whom I had never met before at that point, gave her condolences to me in front of four people at the beginning of the semester party, who all (of course) wanted to discuss it and give their condolences, too. Because what I wanted after making it into college here was to discuss my ex-husband and that legal case. I tried to shrug it off because of the crowd involved, but I seriously thought about kicking her ass and working my way up the food chain.

In any case, back to the bitter bitches.

It was a little community building to hear that many women in the program with nasty divorces or experiences behind them. After all, academia is one of the places we're all supposed to default to being men who, you know, never bring their lives into the classroom with them and always have the impartial view. Emotions have no place in the playground of the mind, you know? Yes, well, I never came to class shell-shocked from being questioned by a detective or, in one case, after being there for my daughter's molestation exam, after trying for the umpteenth million time to figure out where I went wrong or endlessly prank-called all night by my ex's brothers and friends (yes, I turned the phone off after a few times.) Never.

And you know what? I chose to write about it, too. Might as well, since it was apparently already public knowledge. Moreover, there's bound to be some other woman out there with the same problems. That went over well. I'm soooo bitter, sooooo messed up for bringing something like that into the classroom space. I should be writing about something a little less problematic. Of course, I don't have anything else to write about right now, so I guess I should stop writing.

We're encouraged, as nasty, bitter women, to be solitary creatures, ruined for normal relationships and told we are the perpetual crows on the edges of the gender battlefields. There are certainly times when I feel as if that were true. I feel like some kind of carrion eating scavenger or someone carrying a battle axe. Of course, I get to forget it sometimes, too. I can only conclude from the sheer volume of women in the room who, just for a second, acknowledged nasty divorces, that we are well represented in academia. Possibly because, as the meme goes, if you don't have a man to do for ya....


I know it's the you-aren't-complete-without-one bullshit. Unfortunately, it gets cited as if it is the only cause for going to college. When you don't have a partner but do have an obligation to provide, you have to do something with yourself that has a reasonable expectation of increasing that ability so that you can get by on your own, irrespective of men, women and wtf-ever. Or you could be going for yourself. Whichever.

That 'if there's no man to do for ya' meme has a very powerful effect on our culture, and I often find myself wondering how my fellow 'bitter bitches' approach the accrual of social and (hopefully) earning power that is getting a degree. In my impression of the academic experience, we have to face the meme. If we speak up, it's because we're bitter or we think we're macho. (I may never stop thinking about that incident. I kicked him out of bed after that statement and the talk that followed, but was polite enough to offer him coffee, since we had both just been stinking drunk/hungover. He declined and gtfo. I'm crazy, you know.) One of the guys I know told me that the MFA program I had just gotten into was one more step on the way to my becoming a (crazy) cat lady. I told him I thought my cat was better company than most of the men I've dated.

The funny thing there is that I know the relationships between men and women do not have to be antagonistic, not that I've ever seen it (I've got hopes for this one), but he didn't. We both laughed for different reasons.

Ha, ha, ha.

Part of the MFA comps here is the articulation of why you chose to go to college and what you think you'll be doing there in the first place/have done (both in the entrance letter and in the comps.) I get the impression, coming into the process, that I'm not supposed to say things like, 'because I have obligations to provide for my children, because I want to be economically independent, because this is a socially viable proof that my relatives were wrong about where women belong, because I have things I want to share and because this appeals to me.' It'd be okay if it was all about my brains, which is certainly a part of it, but there are other concerns. I think the assumption here goes that lucre is dirty and proof (I conjecture on the discussions I've been involved in or overheard in classes) that women just don't understand the (pure) purpose of academia.

Maybe I'm a silly, bitter bitch, but I think I can have both the brains and the money. And I am damn well going to write about what I have to write about without apologizing that I make reviewers nervous.

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